The Placebo Effect

In Part I of Faust it is interesting to consider what Mephistopheles actually does for Faust. I would like to say not much. Every time he performs some supernatural act, it is mostly showy and only serves to enhance what is already there. But what about when he has Faust’s youth restored? I will get to that in a minute.

He changes his own appearance to appeal to Faust, but his main tools are speech. And considering Faust is already of the mindset necessary for conversion, it is an easy enough task. He offers Faust unlimited pleasures, but what he is really offering is permission to do that which he is already capable and willing, and only slightly reluctant.

The entire time Faust *thinks* he needs Mephistopheles to fulfill his wishes because he lacks the confidence to make the necessary changes in his life that would lead to the happiness he seeks. He is a weak character unwilling to put forth the work needed, and Mephistopheles is his placebo, urging him forward, towards apparent fulfillment, presumably equipping him with strength. He argues he saved Faust from suicide. Suicide is the easy way out. What is Mephistopheles offering?

For their first adventure Mephistopheles takes Faust to a tavern. Do you need divine intervention to go to a bar? Yes, Faust comes to the realization of the differences, and even more poignantly the similarities between himself and the men he encounters there, but it is highly unlikely he would not have come to that conclusion himself had he simply walked to any tavern in the city.

Faust wants Gretchen and Mephistopheles tells him he has no control over her. He does not procure her for him, but rather lets him do all the work, simply acting as a facilitator. Sure, the jewels he obtains to give Gretchen are fantastic, but somehow I think a new pair of pearl earrings and a pretty gold bracelet would have had the same effect. Faust could probably afford those himself.

And instead of creeping around in her room when she is not home, he may just have knocked on her front door. No?

As for charming Marthe and acquiring her as an accomplice, again, Mephistopheles uses his charms, but that too is no extraordinary feat. Think of Madeline in Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes.

Mephistopheles has no actual control over the other characters. When Faust wants to extract Gretchen from the prison, again Mephistopheles can only get him there, but then acts as nothing more than a look-out. All of this is plainly stated in just the previous scene as Faust begins to blame Mephistopheles for Gretchen’s downfall, and Mephistopheles asks who got her there, “I or you?”

Even as Mephistopheles follows Faust around his only purpose is to slowly elucidate to Faust his own inner desires – he creates nothing in Faust, but works with what is already there.

Which brings me to the earlier scene where Faust’s youth is restored. While that is an actual physical alteration that Faust could not have done on his own, the actual act does not add anything to Faust. He is not imbued with virility by virtue of youth. Keep in mind, before he drinks the elixir that transforms him he is already enamored with Gretchen, seeing her image in the mirror. His perceived unattractive form is only an excuse he makes for why he could not have her, never denying he wants her. His lust for her was already in place, he simply lacked the confidence to go after her, and restoring his youth is simply the catalyst for pursuit. But there is no reason to believe his natural appearance would have hindered him otherwise.

Mephistopheles does not lead Faust, or corrupt him either. Not in the true sense of it. In fact, on several occasions he tries to lead Faust towards decisions and activities that will seal his corruption and complete degradation, but without success (Walpurgis). In the last scene, attempting to rescue Gretchen from prison was probably not on Mephistopheles’ list of things to do. It is one of the few times Faust actually shows compassion, even if only briefly.

But Mephistopheles can’t alter Faust. He cannot make decisions for him. He is simply the placebo that gives Faust impetus to act on those desires that are strongest when faced with a decision.

Yet once this is discovered, in Part II, as Mephistopheles actually does create different scenarios, it will become even more apparent that Faust’s strongest desires are also the weakest. If you are like me, long before the end your strongest desires will be to slap Faust senseless. But trace his motivation, and you will find something rather interesting there. You might still want to slap him… but… well…  you will see.

 

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